I actually have a very naive question. When someone says

All but five people have left the town.

What does it actually mean? Have 5 people left the town or has everyone else left, with only 5 people remaining?

  • "All but" means "all except". – Scott Oct 22 '14 at 0:18
  • You mean question, not doubt. – tchrist Oct 22 '14 at 1:14

A definition of but:

other than (Merriam-Webster)

A definition of all:

the whole number or sum of (Merriam-Webster)

In All but five people have left the town, all represents the total number of people that were in the town, 5 denotes how many people didn't leave, and but creates the condition for how to use those two sums in relation to each other.


all but something:

  • Everyone or everything except those mentioned. (The Free Dictionary)

Your sentence means: "Everyone except five people left the town."

All but the weakest plants survived the hot weather. (All plants except the weakest...)


Everyone else left, those five stayed.

On the other hand, all but is an idiomatic phrase which means almost, nearly:

He was all but dead.

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